TAMPA - When William Anderson isn't competing for the Jr. Panthers at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs, the 9-year-old forward can usually be found on rollerblades in the driveway of his Boca Raton home, firing shots at a pair of nets for hours on end.
The hot pavement isn't an ideal substitute for an ice surface, but William's father, Jeff, who grew up playing hockey in Toronto, said his son could care less. As long as there's a net, a puck, and a stick, the national sport of Canada is alive and well in South Florida.
"I put a stick in his hand when he was young, and he never let it go," Jeff Anderson said of his son, who is a big fan of Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov. "He's addicted to it. If he's not practicing with the team, he's out front."
Anderson and fellow Jr. Panther Zach Shield, a 10-year-old goaltender from Parkland, recently got a chance to put their skills to the test against some of the best young players in the country at the Mini 1-on-1 Tournament at the 2018 NHL All-Star Weekend in Tampa.
The Mini 1-on-1 is an NHL-sponsored Squirt (10U) shootout tournament. Each year, clubs from around the league host their own qualifying rounds to determine who will represent them in the final competition at NHL All-Star Weekend. This is the first year the Panthers have attended.
The Panthers hosted qualifying rounds for Squirt travel teams at each of the six local ice rinks in South Florida, with the top goaltender-shooter tandem from rink earning an invitation to compete in the finals at BB&T Center in December.
In the end, Anderson and Shield beat five other teams to earn a trip to Tampa.
"This is an awesome opportunity for Zachary to be able to do this, to be able to skate with the best skaters from these other organizations," Zach's father, Nathan Shield said. "The NHL and the Panthers have just on an unbelievable event there for them to participate in. He's ecstatic."
In the weeks leading up to the tournament, Shield said he spent extra time during his usual on-ice practices working with his goaltending coach. The day before leaving, however, he also got another special pep talk from Barkov, who was also heading to his first All-Star Game.
Shield and Anderson were also invited to attend a morning skate before the Panthers' matchup with the Washington Capitals the Thursday before All-Star Weekend. Anderson, unfortunately, was unable to attend, but Shield said he still enjoyed every moment, especially meeting No. 16.
"It was very fun," said Shield. "It's sad that William wasn't there."
Although they arrived as a pair, Shield and Anderson were split up during the tournament, as skaters and shooters each received separate scores. There were 14 teams total in the event, with each franchise-sponsored team competing in both shootout-style and skills competitions.
At 4-foot-6 and 82 pounds, Anderson relies on his puck-handling and accuracy to beat opposing goaltenders. When asked about his shootout approach in December, the fourth-grader said he's a fan of playing the waiting game, holding onto the puck just long enough to find an opening.
"Basically, I like going side-to-side and curving like a zig-zag line until I get an open spot on the goalie," said Anderson, long hair overflowing from his cap. "My shot is typically a little bit below the blocker because I don't want to go too high."
Shield, who benefits from his 5-foot-2 and 115-pound frame, takes a similar approach in net.
"Whey they are coming at me, I just stay calm and don't go crazy," he said. "I just do the best I can to stop the shot. I go out toward the shooter first and then skate back to cut down the shot angle."
Anderson scored several goals during the shootout portion of the competition, but did not advance to the finals, where Montreal Canadiens representative Liam Lefebvre ended up winning. Shield, meanwhile, finished third among goaltenders, nearly beating winner Mason Gudridge, who represented the Colorado Avalanche.
Still, neither Jr. Panther went home empty-handed.
In addition to Friday's tournament, both players were also able to enjoy the rest of All-Star Weekend, taking in both the All-Star Skills Competition on Saturday and All-Star Game on Sunday at Amalie Arena, with their new hockey-playing pals from around North America.
"I scored goals and I made friends," Anderson said of the weekend.
"I loved getting all the stuff, but I'm very thankful for the Panthers for this opportunity," Shield added.
In the future, the Panthers hope Anderson and Shield's story won't be considered unusual.
Since Florida's inaugural season in 1993-94, the organization's overall presence and investment in youth hockey has helped lead to a generation of more than 13,000 current players throughout the state, according to USA Hockey's enrollment numbers in 2015-16.
As those numbers continue to rise, one thing is clear: hockey and humidity do mix.
"I think, for the kids, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said John Colombo, the director of community relations for the Panthers. "They get to come to the All-Star Game and compete. They've got the locker room set up with all their equipment, so they feel like actual pros today. It's an awesome experience.
"For the organization and South Florida as a whole, I think it's a huge opportunity for us to grow the game and highlight some of the kids in this market that are doing some great things and give them a chance to have a really cool experience on the national level."